There are certain words in the lexicon of development education that become so widely used, so readily adopted, that they become almost immune to questioning – there is an assumed knowledge that we all know what they mean. Global, citizenship, poverty, participation, empowerment and sustainable are just some of those words. More fundamental words include ‘development’ and ‘education’, the very words that make up our shared body of thought. Another is learning: this is the one that interests me the most. When I think about the term ‘learning’ I quickly move towards a consideration of language. I begin to deconstruct words and question their meaning[s]. This is not a one off process either, but a cycle of use and reflection that evolves with my own personal learning. Like my learning, words and their meanings are not static, and they are certainly not neutral.

Head on with ‘development’

The difference between the neglect of language [symptomatic of its widespread adoption rather than necessarily intentional] and an engagement with language is to me, about quality; the quality of our learning experiences and of those we create for learners.

In 2006-7 Tide~ supported a group of educators to engage head on with the term ‘development’ by creating a learning opportunity to reconsider key ideas through an encounter with the Kerala Paradox. Kerala state, at the southern tip of India is in many ways isolated [geographically, historically and culturally] from the rest of India, a fact reflected in its historical and lived experiences. One of these is the state’s development experience and it is here that the notion of the paradox is encountered. Put simply, the paradox describes how Kerala has achieved high levels of social development [literacy, life expectancy and wellbeing] without the parallel levels of economic development that conventional development theories would have us expect.

This lived reality provided a sharp jolt to received wisdom around notions of development, poverty, citizenship, participation, globalization, equality and alike. It begged questions of these terms and of the way in which we construct and organise them in our own learning and in that of our learners. It brought the assumed and often subconscious subtleties of language firmly into the learning spotlight. And just as we might react under the beam of a real spotlight, so this metaphorical spotlight left many of us feeling disorientated, uncomfortable and confused.

Images available on the Kerala Group powerpoint presentation

If the metaphor is further extended then a natural, and entirely reasonable reaction is to try and move out of the spotlight – to refuse to challenge what you understand, to close down thinking. This relieves the discomfort, but only through the tactic of avoidance. The harder, and yet ultimately more constructive response is to learn to live with the light that the beam offers, negotiate the discomfort and find a way forward. But this can be hard and just as a beam of light can seem relentless so too can the questioning that comes with global learning. At some point however, there is a need to begin to bring it home; to ground the thinking and learning. This is where many of us now find ourselves, trying to find ways to marry our experiences in Kerala to our real life educational contexts.

Quality global learning: blue sky thinking

A Tide~ network conference on Quality Global Learning [8 June 2007], provided an early opportunity for members of the Kerala group to share in some of the dilemmas these challenges raised. I say early, because it came so soon after following our return from Kerala, at a time when many of us were still in the process [an ongoing process] of synthesising the experiences.

Nevertheless, the conference provided an opportunity to represent something of the questioning and the dialogue that had typified our encounters with development in Kerala. Conceptually we have come to see these encounters as like looking through a window, whilst standing in front of a mirror. The window represents our "experience encounter", the raw and unprocessed reality of what we see, hear, feel, smell and taste. The mirror is our "reflective encounter", where we explore what we bring to bear on our own learning thinking and in turn how the light from the window can alter that thinking.

Representing the collective thoughts of a group, is fraught with pitfalls, but in the context of quality global learning it is the dialogue, the questioning, the framing and reframing of ideas that is of greatest relevance. Members of the Kerala group selected a series of images from Kerala to represent something of our encounters there – the bare face of development so to speak. These images [six in all] are dotted throughout this article and were shared in the opening plenary of the QGL conference by representatives of the Kerala group [Angela Crane, Angela Horton, Richard Woolley]. Using our conceptual framework, each image shares a view from our window that led to some immediate questions and some of these are imposed on their respective image as the uppermost in each instance. The reflective encounter represented through the mirror begins to raise a second level of questions; questions that build upon our own positionality and help us to find or challenge how it fits with our existing frames of reference. The presenters shared some of those too, which here appear as lower questions on each image.

Making sense of this thinking is complex. The aspiration of quality global learning provides some direction and purpose through which to begin unravelling that complexity, but for this to have meaning we must first set out what it is we aspire to.

What is quality global learning? The jury is still out on this, but in terms of giving evidence, the Kerala group have given the case some considerable thought. The group shared these thoughts in a workshop at the QGL conference facilitated by group members [Shirley Addies, Darryl Humble, Denize Morris and Rosie Wilson]. Workshop participants developed the ideas further and we now share these with a wider audience and invite readers to further refine and add to them. See Feedback from the Kerala workshop: 'Quality global learning could be about …'

In terms of learning, one of the greatest challenges faced by the Kerala group was how to incorporate the quality and depth of understanding gleaned during the experience into their normal educational contexts. Were the aspirations we shared for quality global learning realistic or just blue-sky thinking?

To help share our ideas about this with conference we developed the idea of a hot air balloon as a framework for sharing ideas. The notion was of the hot air enabling us to drift towards our aspirations, to reach the blue-sky thinking. We also faced serious challenges that acted in tension with our aspirations, that held us back, and these were represented by the sandbags. A synthesis of these ideas was presented in the form of a balloon diagram.

Back to square one …

The Kerala group are still meeting at the time of writing and still completing their learning journeys. That so much of the discussion so far has focused on learning and what we mean by that is symptomatic of what we found in Kerala. Education and learning have been made pivotal to Kerala's development experience - the near universal literacy rate has become the hallmark of the state. But what has it achieved? In terms of development, Kerala has a lot to achieve and many aspirations of its own. So-called development 'experts' would espouse that education should help to deliver these, that education is the agent of change. In questioning why this is not the case, despite almost 50 years of a dedicated focus on education, our attention on what we mean and understand by development became rapidly interwoven with a similar debate about what is education. Kerala too, is having this debate and is presently undertaking its own review of the curriculum in order to create an education "fit for purpose".

So what is fit for purpose? To what extent has education become tainted by a culture of delivery and targets? Mmmm, I think I've heard the same said of development! Kerala exemplifies the mediocrity of targets and clearly demonstrates that their attainment does not necessarily bring about change, or at least not the change that was intended. So how do we reconcile this and can quality global learning help us?

The approaches supported by quality global learning lend themselves very well to revisiting notions of development - they take us back to square one. By supporting creativity, embracing uncertainty, and developing the confidence to engage in different perspectives, QGL allows us to get beyond target driven delivery and refocus attention on process and meaning. In Kerala, literacy and education remain at the forefront of government spending and activity today, despite the fact they have brought little economic return. Why is this I found myself asking? I am not entirely sure of the answer, but what I did find was a society and culture enriched by, and passionate about learning. It appears that much of this comes from the fact the Kerala has embraced learning for the sake of learning - described to me by one senior authority as the ultimate human endeavour and therefore our most fundamental right; the right to better ourselves.

The curriculum review Kerala is presently going through is not about creating rigid new structures, but about helping to bring a global perspective to learning, a perspective that better mirrors the lived experiences of Keralans today. As your neighbour builds a house using "Dubai dollars" from an expatriate relative working in the Gulf and a community lobby group succeeds in rejecting a multinational that threatens local water security, you need to make sense of these events. These are new situations for Kerala's people, presenting considerable challenges and requiring new forms of support; new approaches to learning.

This is not dissimilar to the juncture we find ourselves at in England. We too are questioning the purpose of education and are in the middle of reviewing our own curricula. As in Kerala, it is imperative that this takes place within the global context that is the reality of our lived experience. Quality global learning is a response to that need and as we move through the process of encouraging its take up, the experiences of Kerala's development, with education and learning at its core, would appear to have much more to offer.

Of related interest is an article by Darryl Humble, a member of the Kerala group [2007] where he outlines the idea of a development encounter.